The Genetics Of Multitasking
January 10, 2014

The Genetics Of Multitasking

I remember hearing a long time ago how it is not possible to truly multitask. There is only so much attention that a single person can give a single task, and when trying to perform multiple tasks at the same time, the person is forced to divide their effort between them, thus not being able to perform at either task as well as they could if they focused on only one. While I am sure that there is some merit to this, I do not fully agree with this assessment. People do multiple things at once all the time. Even as I am writing this I am having a discussion with some friends on what to do this weekend, assuming the “snow-pocalypse” has passed by then. When it comes to multitasking I think it comes down to the individual when determining how well they are able to divide their efforts. But what determines who is able to multitask efficiently and who is not? Could be be in our genetics?

It has been theorized that individuals who possess the Met/Met genotype of the Val158Met variant of the Catechol-O-Methyltransferase (COMT) gene are likely better able to divide their attention to many separate tasks at once, even if that is only for specific occurrences. Tests have shown that the COMPT gene increases dopamine levels in a person’s prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is what controls executive functions such as memory, reasoning, and problem solving, and so it is believed that people with the Met/Met genotype would perform better in simulated air-defense tasks. Tests were done on 99 candidates (both men and women) ages 18 to 38 who were then divided into three genotyped groups based on their Val158Met variants. One group was, obviously, Met/Met while the others possessed the Val/Met and Val/Val genotypes. Over the course of four training scenarios in which the participants controlled six unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in low and high-task-load conditions where they had to destroy enemy targets, prevent enemy incursions, and avoid any friendly fire that might come their way all while attending to an urgent communications issue. What the researchers discovered was that the people with the Met/Met genotype did indeed perform better than those of the other genotype variants. This study, which was supported by a grant from the Air Force Research Lab, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, will likely go a long way into helping select which individuals are most suited to which task. It also shows the merits of matching individual training with that person’s own select cognitive abilities and hints at just how much more efficient such training might be.

So, is this study telling us that some of us can multitask while others cannot? Well, no, I don’t think it is that cut-and-dry. What I took from this is that there are some of us who are naturally better able to multitask than others, perhaps, though that is as much based on the individual as their genetics. While I do hold a great respect for neuroscience and genetics, I do not feel that we are entirely ruled by those things. There is more to a person than what their genes say. So, while there may be some people who hold the genetic advantage when it comes to multi-tasking, it remains well within the realm of possibility for anyone to do it effectively.

Image Credit: ThinkStock

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